Dir: Junji Sakamoto. Jap. 2001. 138mins.
A thriller about the true-life 1973 kidnapping of Kim Dae-jung, the current South Korean president, from a Tokyo hotel, KT tries for a no-frills approach that presents its knotty Cold War story in realistic shades of grey, as if John Le Carre was transposed to the Far East. The Japanese and Korean media will doubtless debate the film's historical fidelity until its May release, timed for the Japan-Korea World Cup. However, the rest of the world will find it harder to parse the political background or puzzle out the motives of the Japanese hero, an intelligence agent who finds himself allied with the kidnappers. Given the track record of director Junji Sakamoto, whose drama Face swept Japanese film awards in 2000, festival interest is likely to be strong, but overseas theatrical sales will probably be slower. Given the paucity of action scenes - the real-life incident produced almost no bloodshed, so the filmmakers had to improvise - KT will find its natural home on the arthouse circuit. However, this has not stopped the film's Japanese and Korean distributors from promoting it as the successor to the Korean mega-hits Shuri and JSA.
The drama is set in 1973, when South Korea was under the control of dictator Park Jung Hee, who ruthlessly suppressed dissent with the backing of the Korean Central Intelligence (KCIA). Although modelled on the CIA, the KCIA had far broader powers to arrest and, in some cases, eliminate Koreans suspected of subversive activities.
Tomita (Koichi Sato), an intelligence officer for the Japanese Self Defence Force, is tracking a suspected North Korean spy when his counterparts from the KCIA, led by Kim Chang-on (Kim Kab-soo), arrive at his flat to take him away for interrogation. Tomita permits this violation of Japanese sovereignty, but saves Lee Jeongmi (Yang Eung-yong), a girl who was teaching the spy Korean. He learns that, as a student in South Korea, she was tortured by the KCIA for protesting against the dictatorship of then president Park Jung Hee.
The KCIA, however, has bigger fish to fry, namely Kim Dae-jung, an opposition leader who is calling for reconciliation between North and South, which Park and his administration interpret as a capitulation to communism. The minister at the Korean embassy in Japan (Kim Byong-se) receives orders from Seoul to eliminate Kim, who is living in exile in Japan - the so-called "KT plan."
He assembles a group of six agents, led by Kim Chang-on, to carry out the plan, with Japanese assistance. Under orders from his Self Defence Force superiors, Tomita tracks Kim's whereabouts with the unwitting aid of a grizzled scandal sheet journalist (Yoshio Harada), but remains in the dark about his Korean colleagues' true intentions. Then, as the plan shifts from assassination to kidnapping, he starts to see the light - and isn't sure he likes it.
KT's twisty plot has its pleasures, but its efforts to cover all the angles, including the many meetings of granite-faced men, in and out of uniform, at times slows the narrative to a crawl. Meanwhile its blatant departures from the historical record, most noticeably the downplaying of the important American role in Kim Dae Jung's rescue, undermine its claims to accuracy.
As Tomita, Koichi Sato carries the film over more than one dry spot with his dark rage at his spineless bosses, who blow with the political winds, and his conflicted passion for Lee Jeongmi. But more than an actor's showcase, KT is an exercise in historical revisionism - and unfortunately not all audiences are going to know, or care, what is being revised.
Prod co: Cine Quanon
Japan dist: Cine Quanon
Exec prod: Lee Bong-nu
Prod: Yukiko Shii
Scr: Haruhiko Arai
Cinematography: Norimachi Kasamichi
Ed: Toshihide Fukano
Music: Tomoyasu Hotei
Main cast: Koichi Sato, Kim Kab-soo, Kim Byong-se, Yoshio Harada, Yang Eung-yong